Vietnam is surprisingly “easy” to travel in. Perhaps too easy! There are so many organised tours and buses, that if not careful, your whole time here could potentially turn into one big, extended tour! Tam Coc, although only a couple of hours south of Hanoi, is no exception, and is definitely a popular day trip from Hanoi. Not to be deterred, the aim was to do it ourselves!
Guesthouse (brilliant to the very end!) organised for a couple of motorbike drivers, to take us to the local bus station, which was a good fifteen minute ride away, from where we took a bus the short two hours to Ninh Binh
(not to be confused with Nimbin
!). Even on the back of those two bikes, we were stunned at the amount of other motorbikes we saw! Zipping and weaving as they were doing, it’s anyone’s
guess as to why more accidents do not occur! Before we knew it, we were in Ninh Binh
, which is the jumping off point for Tam Coc
, which has been poetically coined, “Halong
Bay on the rice paddies”. After finding a place to stay, we took a stroll around town. With not many foreigners around, it was a great place to watch the locals. We found a food market, and had a bit of a wander as well as doing some food shopping. Bargaining is tough in Vietnam, and you
really have to bargain viciously for everything…whilst keeping a smile on your face. In that way no-one loses face. This can
become really tedious, and after so many months of travelling, at times, downright boring! We’d
heard about it, we’d
talked about it, we were
told it was true, and we finally saw it for ourselves! I did a take two, as I walked past the meat section in the market (which I usually try to avoid)…..was that a dog’s head I saw? Yep! Rover today, dinner tomorrow! Jokes aside, dogs are not bred in Vietnam for food, and pretty much any dog is fare (or is it fair!) game! I couldn
‘t believe it when I told Alex, and he said that he hadn’t seen it. Them, actually, as there were a few! So, as discreetly as the only two foreigners in the market could, we walked past to take another look! Yep, definitely Rover!
The next day, we hired some bicycles and cycled the 10 kilometres out to Tam Coc, which was, expectedly, absolutely full of tourists. After purchasing our tickets, we proceeded to the dock, from where either one or two people take you out in a small boat, down a gorgeous river, culminating in some spectacular caves. As we looked around, whilst breathtaking, we could also see the work going on to make it look……well, more like Disneyland! Shouldn’t be long now folks! The essential Tam Coc experience is to sit back, and be rowed through the Ngo Dong River, culminating in three caves, and a hard sell to rival the Mormons! Whilst, yes, it was spectacular, and watching the karst peaks jut out of rice paddies whilst riding along a serpentine river did not fail to impress, it’s the part at the end that I found most “enjoyable”. Lonely Planet refers to the scam as the “Tam Coc Tango”. We knew it was coming, as we had heard about it and were prepared for it! Read on! It begins with boat vendors following you and urging you to “buy drink for madame” (after paying a ridiculous price for the drink, and offering it to the”madame” who is rowing your boat, “madame” then sells it back to the vendor and makes a nice little sum). Despite being asked several times, we stood firm, and said no! (whilst watching the multitude of other tourists buying their rowers both drinks and snacks). As the others bought copiously, and our rowers could see that we were not going to buy, we started to make our way back to the starting point. Time for hard sell number two! A mystery chest seemed to appear out of nowhere, and out they came a-rolling…..t-shirts, embroidered table cloths, hats and a number of other things. We continued to say no politely several more times. Whilst firm in our resolve, it did distract from the surroundings around us! Option two fatigued, they went for the jugular, a manoeuvre they hoped would work, as by this point we were over it…….”tip please”! We had considered it, but they blew it when they asked, and asked, and asked, and asked! I think perhaps the Mormons would have been more lenient!
We virtually ran off the boat, and waved goodbye! After picking up our bikes, exactly where we had parked them, close by, we took a few hours to cycle around the immediate area. With virtually no tourists, this was a spectacular way to see how the people live and work in their environment. The locals were harvesting rice, and the husks were all around us, and indeed on many occasions, we had to cycle over them. It was not a problem
for them, and so it was not a problem for us! We got a lot of stares and “sin jows
” (hellos), which is always beautiful. We cycled through rice fields, and saw little wooden houses, where people lived in basic living conditioners; we saw people working the fields; we saw little pagodas without another human in sight; we saw children playing; we saw temples. We went to another bigger pagoda, called Bich
Dong. It’s a cave pagoda, and quite popular amongst the Vietnamese, but it was the scenic road winding through rice
fields, hemmed in by karsts
, and ending in a dusty village, which I felt to be the highlight. On the way back to Ninh Binh
, we stumbled upon another cave pagoda. To reach it, we had to walk up an outdoor stairway for about fifteen minutes, but what a rewarding view! This time we got a sea of karst
peaks from up high!
The next day, we took a couple of bikes again, and decided to cycle around the countryside. It proved to be one of our favourite days in Vietnam. We cycled along rivers that were at times wide, and at others thin. We cycled far enough that we were without a doubt the only foreigners in sight. We cycled on roads, we cycled on dirt tracks, and at times we cycled on tracks so narrow that they were more like railings! Again, mind blowing scenery coupled with the locals living their lives, continued to present us with the lessons one learns from the University of Life. We seem to complain about such trivial things, when these people do it hard! Really hard! The women, despite their small stature haul everything from bags of rice to barrels of water. The kids aren’t doing a bad job either! Child labour? No! Kids helping the family in order to eke out a very, very, very humble living!
On our ride we passed Hoa Lu
, which was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh
(968-80) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties, and whilst no Angkor Wat, it was pleasant enough to stroll through. The trip towards Kenh
Ga was the truly mesmerising part, possibly because it’s the best place outside of the Mekong Delta to see river life….but the package comes without the hordes of tourists! It truly was one of those magic afternoons, as we saw the karst
peaks, in all their glory, as a backdrop to a people who call this their home. We cycled through places that were so
narrow that the only form of transportation was bicycles and motorbikes, as nothing larger could fit through. Again, we saw women husking rice, men fishing and children playing, who were as mesmerised by us as we by them. Alex stopped to play with them, and
although shy at first
, they were soon full of laughter and smiles. This was food for my soul! As I stood back and watched Alex, as he really is a kid magnet, out of the corner of my eye,I saw a young man in a wheelchair, who was with his mother. As our eyes connected, he
waved me down, expressing wanting us to have a photo taken together. I obliged! As I put my arm around his shoulders and smiled for Alex’s (forever “snapping”) camera, he too gave me a smile from ear to ear, and so did his mother. But they were two very different smiles. The young man’s was because I had clearly made his day by making the effort to communicate
with him, and his mother’s expressed total and absolute thanks! And then there was my smile, which lifted my heart and appeased
With so much more to do in Vietnam, we would be catching a night bus on to Hue in Central Vietnam. We decided that (on this trip) we would bypass the Demilitarised Zone
(DMZ), which was basically the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the first Indochina War. During the second Indochina War (more commonly referred to as the Vietnam War
), it was the demarcation line between the communist North Vietnam, and the south.
Unfortunately, a little scuffle broke out as Alex and I were waiting to catch the bus to Hue, which originated in Hanoi. It was supposed to arrive at 9.30pm, but did not arrive until well after 10.30pm. A couple of guys from the hotel we were staying at, walked us to the main road, which is where the bus would pick us up from. It finally arrived, and as we were getting on we recognised a Dutch couple we had met in Hanoi. We were telling them about the nice place we had stayed in in Ninh Binh
, and then the owners proceeded to give them some details. In the middle of their conversation, another “seller” (from some downtown hotel) steps between them, and starts his blurb on his hotel! My response to this was to ask him to move away, and give the
couple a chance to chat to the other people first. He looked at me and continued his rude and brash behaviour! I was really taken aback, and the other couple obviously overwhelmed, so I stepped up rather closely and told me he was an “anus” (the word has been changed so as not to offend!), after which I proceeded to place my large backpack in the luggage compartment of the bus. Having said my bit, I thought it was all over! Oh no! This guy gets right up close, surpassing all boundaries of personal space, and starts abusing me. I was taken aback! Not sure exactly what ticked him off – me calling him an “anus” or the couple not taking him up on his offer of a place to stay! Why had I opened my mouth in the first place? Because he was being aggressive and a bully….and I don’t like bullies! What ensue
d was something along these lines : I told him to get the f!*?k out of my face or he would have to choose between a hospital or a police station, to which he became a little bit too touchy feeling……well, for Alex, anyway! What Alex did next stunned even me….he bellowed out, “Get your f!#?$!g hands off my wife”, which he gracefully followed through with a beautifully executed kick, smack bang in the centre of his chest! In the next few seconds it was on for young and old; Alex had fallen on his back as he’d lost his balance, whilst the irate Vietnamese man was trying to rip some bamboo off a fence close by, and clobber one or the both of us! Was I scared? No! Well, OK, a tad! Was I furious? Like, yeh
!!!!! Nobody touches or threatens me! And if I cannot deal with it, or need a helping hand, Alex is by my side. The guy kept hurling abuse and telling us that HE would call the police! Yes, I repeat, that HE would call the police. Yep, we’ve got a hero here that’s few cans short of the proverbial six pack! This is another one of those stories that I will happily go into on my return home. But it will cost you….a coffee or two!
Time to jump in the bus! I do not think it’s appropriate here to mention my exact parting words, but I proudly and defiantly gave him the one finger salute! And with my hand high in the air, the doors closed and the bus took off! It was dark, but I could see his red and angry face! My system was pumping with adrenalin, as it had been a long day (as we had cycled some 40 kilometres), and an even longer night. The sleeper bus could not have been any more inviting! Luckily, here in Vietnam, the sleeper buses are a little wider, longer and more comfortable than their Chinese counterparts. We settled in, and we were soon asleep…..physical and mental exhaustion!
NOTE: I have decided that there is actually something that I loathe more than arrogance and rudeness (I despise both equally), and it’s called complacency! HOW does the world change if we all sit back and watch without doing anything! I will not shut-up, and I will not be silenced and my voice WILL be heard!
I shared our little kung–fu adventure with a very special and dear friend, Annie Whitlocke, a few weeks back, just after the event occurred, and this is what she had to say:
“I agree 100%, the worst thing we can do is nothing. By not voicing our opinions we accept injustice not just for ourselves but for others. Many do not have the opportunity to voice their feelings, it is up to people like you to be courageous and yell until they are heard. I also know that if it was a popularity contest, we would be in the back seats by now!
Many times people have told me to shut up and mind my own business, but the reason I speak out is to address a deep gut ache. It goes beyond words.
Complacency is like a disease, once it sets in it affects every aspect of our lives and I believe it also affects our physiological body and organs.
I love your passion….as does Alex no doubt ( :
All my love
Never stop screaming
Thanks Annie. We love you too! And I promise that I will NEVER stop screaming!
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”
– Anais Nin
(1903 – 1977).
(Photos:1.-Cycling around Tam Coc……oh, that’s not one of our bikes by the way! 2.- I’ll have half a kilo of Rover, thanks! 3.- Stroke, stroke, stroke…with your feet! That’s our oarsman taking us to visit the caves of Tam Coc. 4.- A mini floating-market, Ngo Dong River, Tam Coc. 5.- Husking rice! Work goes on as usual for the locals of Ninh Binh, despite me cycling over their rice! 6.- Karst peak, on the way to Kenh Ga. 7.- Kids having some fun, on the way to Kenh Ga. 8.- Food for the soul! Making somebody happy! 9.- Sunset in the Kenh Ga area. 10.- Contemplation! Little boy in Hoa Lu. 11.- Vietnamese dong (their currency) as an offering in a temple.)